The Keys of Marinus

Written by:
Terry Nation
Directed by: John Gorrie
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1964
Video Availability: Try

The Keys of My Anus is arguably the weakest Hartnell story, certainly the weakest of his first season. Yet even in a below-par story like this the era still dares to take risks. Okay, the five stories in one format is probably there for Nation's convenience rather than genuine innovation, but an entire episode here is given over to a story where a man attempts to rape Barbara - shocking stuff for what fans now pigeonhole as kid's programming.

Yet while I come to praise Billy and not to bury him, it has to be said that this first episode is a festering load of toss. It hurts because, while The Daleks (notice a connection already?) is dated in a modern context, this is the first really poor Doctor Who story. Following on from Marco Polo, possibly the greatest Doctor Who story of all, then this is a huge downstep in terms of production, direction and, most importantly, writing. It always staggers me how characters are reduced to single dimensions as soon as Terry Nation's name's on the script. We're only just over a minute in and Barbara remarks "that's the sea, isn't it?" after looking at a massive expanse of water on the scanner. I mean, I know Ian's the science teacher, but surely that's overstating it?

Model work is uncostumarily poor here - laughable, even. "It's so quiet," remarks Barbara, obviously oblivious to the silly reed pipe music that the viewers are having to endure. "Yes it is," agrees Ian, "no birds or anything." "There's nothing growing" adds Barbara, just to make sure we get it. A deserted, lifeless planet? Didn't we do that a couple of stories back already? Terry only has one script, and it's not a very good one.

Sole plus factor of this first episode is a top five fluff classic from Billy Big Up, completely misunderstanding the script: "And if you'd had your shoes on, my boy, you could have lent her hers." You sense that when William Russell had to laugh in reaction he wasn't acting that hard. (For completeness' sake, here's the rest of this story's fluffs: Episode One - "Yes, I don't think… I don't see why not."; "If you think I'm going to travel across that acid sea in one of these primitive mer… submersibles."; Episode Two - "Altos has shown me how to just-adjust mine."; Five - "I admit that I … resorted to a subterfuge when Sabetha … uh… uh… accused Aydan of taking the key."; Six - "And you will accompany my - me, my dear." There's also much umming and errring over his "laboratory" line in episode two, as well as hesitancy over the "overcoming the fault mechanism" one in the same instalment.)

You might argue that with the stark angular and two-dimensional sets then this is attempting avant garde, sort of like a teatime version of Dr. Caligari. This limited set means that it's only shot from one angle, severely compromising the structure of what's on screen. It really is astonishingly poor, with Scooby Doo-like revolving walls and agonisingly bad direction by John Gorrie. Look at Jacqueline Hill - one of the best-ever companions (THE best ever, perhaps?) yet here her performance veers on sheer incompetence. That can't be a coincidence. The staggering amount of technical errors in this episode alone probably outnumber any other Doctor Who story, from jolting cameras, plastic Voord models and doors that don't work. Just Susan walking through Ian's "invisible shield" acting is enough to make you lose all hope. George Coulouris even clutches his chest despite being stabbed in the back.

I'm glad to get this one out of the way fairly early as it's my intention to reappraise the Hartnell era - big up Billy, as it were. By doing the dross first (and there really is very little) then we can get to the good stuff. Why does this get two stars when clearly it's, at best, a * ½ production? The charm of the regulars alone earns it at least that - in fact, the charm of the regulars is the only thing that kept me watching.
* *

The Velvet Web… what a superb name for an episode. Err… but why was it called that again? Still, take comfort - when Nation did have an episode relevantly named it was called things like "The Snows of Terror". To be fair, though, it is a quite eloquent and romantic summing-up of the episode's themes.

Is this episode based on some classical literature? It has that kind of well-read inspirational feel about it. There's also a nice moment where Barbara gets touchy-feely with Ian and looks as if she's about to kiss him. Though the fact that he's wearing more eyeliner than she is probably put her off.

I do like this one, I have to confess. The subject of mind control and possession is a striking one, and the idea of the Tardis crew having devices on their heads which they cannot see and being surrounded by hallucinations of which they have no awareness is intriguing. Naturally, being a Nation script it never goes beyond tot-friendly dynamics, but there's a really good story at the heart there, along with some relatively interesting camerawork.

A negative - living brains with eyes on stalks. Living brains with eyes on stalks. Living brains. With eyes. That are on stalks. Terry Nation, you are pure class.
* * ½

This whole story really does seem a shameless attempt to work around the regular cast's holidays. You may have been surprised when I listed the Billy fluffs above that I never listed any for this episode or the fourth. That's not perfection on Hartnell's part - he just isn't in them.

Carole Ann Ford is obviously not the world's best actress and is definitely the weak link in the original four, but this is probably just comparing her against her peers. Yes, comparing her to the other companions then she's possibly the worst - though by no means terrible - actress in the first seventeen years. Yet compare her to the 80s actors and she walks over at least half of 'em. Waterhouse, Sutton, Aldred, Langford… she easily outpoints them every time. Besides, you have to look at what she was given to do, and it's another damning condemnation of the Hartnell era. Rarely is Susan given anything to do other than be placed in danger. Considering she's the Doctor's Granddaughter then she's not very bright, though even Barbara is given to screaming her head off when a statue tries to grope her arse here.

Katharine Schofield - did she get her Equity Card at gunpoint? And it's only the third episode but already I'm sick of characters pointing to or referring to events offscreen just because they can't afford to show them. Actually, if you really wanted to look into hidden subtexts of Who, you could build a case for Nation's scripts here being Imperialist. Every threat they seem to face comes from a recognisable "other", right down to the false idol appearance of the statue. This really is a pile of plop though, Barbara rendered into a simpering sap who mewls for Ian to help her. Even in 1964 this must have been at least 20 years out of date. "You mean the jungle's attacking us?" she asks as dozens of badly animated shrubs strike in pure pulp SF mode. There's no getting one over on her this story, is there? As for Ian - "this wind's going right through me" - save it, mate, I don't wanna hear about your personal problems.
* *

Okay, stock footage of wolves and a bit of polystyrene do not an arctic wasteland make, but this is easily the most controversial and densely packed episode of the story. Get out your Mulvey and your Kaplan, because this is a man attempting to rape Barbara for our entertainment.

I guess it can work on other levels - kids may have thought Vasor was just trying to kill her - but should rape be presented as a mere throwaway narrative device? This is not the only time this happens, with the same theme being used for farce in The Romans. What makes it worse here is the underplayed way it's dealt with, as if rape is just an everyday occurrence, a trivial hazard. And Vasor's conversion into a comical scardey-cat is even more distasteful.

The rest of the episode? God knows, I got bored and started looking at my wallpaper. It seemed to involve some feeble ice robot knights and a rope bridge, which Susan cleverly draws attention to by saying "look, it's a rope bridge".
* * ½

Ian gets confronted by a camp Nazi figure who's called Tarron - that's two Nation clichés for the price of one! Ian also makes possibly the second "Doctor Who?" gag in the series' history, which is clearly not a good thing. Billy's back and to the rescue, offering to defend Ian on a murder charge. Cor blimey, if you need Billy to defend you against a murmur - murder charge then thins, things must be bad, hmmm? Eh? Yes, yes, quite so. I imagine that if he ever put in an appearance at the Old Bailey then they'd have had more eloquent speakers. But don't bitch - okay, Billy says "under ar - er- rest" but this one has more extras in the court scenes than all of the other episodes put together.

Yeah, Terry Nation did a story of interlinked stories, not one of which was worth ten minutes, let alone twenty-five. But he tried, and this one does have a bit of intrigue. Bill is poorer with the SF stories (this clearly isn't the commanding performance we know he's capable of) and the camera's shaking all over the place, but I do kind of feel sorry for it in a way. And while I always felt I liked this instalment because I knew it was coming to a thankful end, doing this episode-by-episode I realise that this is the finest of the six, even if it lacks anything approaching genuine sophistication.
* * *

Some ropy acting in this one, though I put it down to Gorrie's insufferable direction more than anything else. Nine minutes in and Billy tries laughing like a loon to liven it up, a clear pointer to his season two persona.

One of the most tedious stories in Who's canon, I find it very hard to focus on. There are some subtexts there if you want to look for them - the second could be a commentary on 60s counter culture if you really wanted it to be - though probably isn't, given that it hadn't actually happened yet, and that Terry Nation's the writer. Only Ian is on sort-of form from the regulars, while the Voord are such a crap alien race that Paul Cornell will probably make them guest villains in a novel sometime soon.

There's plenty of stifling exposition here, which easily overrides the commentary about freedom of choice. If you ask anyone their idea of bad Hartnell Who, then it's probably summed up by this one. It's amateurish, slow, badly acted and atrociously made, a real nadir of the black and white years but NOT a nadir of the series overall. Barhara claims she'll miss Sapetha and Alltoss, but as they're a pair of planks we hardly get to know then it's really no great loss. And that's it I'm afraid. With no coda and a reprise of episode one's model shot this one is over, Nation spewing his disregard for the audience all over the screen. That's yer lot, you've had yer jelly and yer ice cream, now go home!
* *

A poor story, badly made. Probably the weakest of Hartnell's tales, it gets by on the appeal of the regulars alone. Ironically then, it's one of their best stories as it demonstrates how great a team the original crew was.
* *